By: Clovis Westlund, Leadership & Social Justice Intern
Anti-Trans Legislation in the 2020s: Politics, Power, and Impact
Communities across the country are being inundated with anti-trans legislation. Whether the bills are targeting sports, bathrooms, healthcare, classrooms, or pronouns, trans youth are now forced to advocate for their survival, defending their right to exist in front of governing bodies. However, it is impossible to fight these attacks, or even understand them, without exploring the political mechanisms and interests behind them.
The spread of anti-trans legislation can be attributed to three features: (1) the moral and political bases of school policy, (2) the treatment of youth as political objects, and (3) the dehumanization of transgender people. Through an exploration of these qualities, two trends become clear — youth are intentionally and systematically disempowered and our flawed electoral system morphs misinformed national opinion into structurally oppressive policies.
Anti-Trans Legislation in the 2020s
The rising wave of bills targeting trans and gender non-conforming (GNC) youth comes amid record levels of support for the LGBTQ+ community among the general public. As of November 2022, all but 11 states have active anti-LGBTQ bills. 2021 holds the title for the worst legislative year for LGBTQ+ people, with 147 bills introduced and 17 enacted, and early reports show that 2022 is on track to break this record.
However, anti-queer legislative measures do not reflect public consensus. General awareness and understanding of trans and non-binary people is at an all-time high. In a national study, over 60% of respondents favored transgender protections in jobs, housing, and public spaces. 2021 also saw the highest number of states to ever receive the Human Rights Campaign’s “Working Towards Innovative Equality” distinction.
State legislatures have families fearing for the lives of their trans children, even while federal protections abound. Though the U.S. Department of Education declared that Title IX discrimination protections extend to gender identity and sexual orientation, conservative states continue to take swings at trans children. The distinctions are jarring — from one view it appears the arc of the moral universe bends toward justice, but from another, we are spiraling. This contradiction leaves trans children in a quagmire.
Political interplay repeatedly takes one step forward and one step backward, leaving Americans tripping over their feet. The political campaign against trans and GNC youth victimizes and exploits them as pawns in a greater ideological war. In order to radically imagine a path forward and to curate a forceful correction of our collective gait, we must understand the three features present in the 100+ anti-trans bills moving through state legislatures across the United States.
Explaining our Predicament: School, Youth, and Transness
Education has historically been a political issue. Classrooms are structurally designed to instill students with the values and skills prioritized by their community, which reflect the greater political moment. The classroom becomes a contentious space where external actors strive to shape the next generation. Those who control education hold tremendous power, and shifts in schools transcend the physical walls of the classroom with implications on the social workings of the larger community.
Control over education is a political tactic intended to mobilize the voting population involved in schooling: parents and caregivers. Unable to contribute to the decisions these populations make, the students impacted by policy change are barred from dialogue. Yet, policies targeting this non-voting population have a strong latent purpose to mobilize the adults in a student’s life. Student-focused bills either threaten or support ideals that parents value; and, in turn, oppositional forces engage parents through fear. This strategy – exploiting the connection between the emotional and political – turns out voters for both political bases.
While parents undeniably have a place in their child’s life – provided they do not abuse this right – the implication of speaking over those most impacted by these harmful policies cannot be overstated. When parents are the target of mobilization, trans youth are caught in the electoral crossfire and denied their right to safety and self-expression. Anti-trans legislation contributes to a dangerous cycle, treating transness as a political, moral issue that spurs greater, bolder bills that ultimately dehumanize trans people. Each bill we witness has explicit political purposes and undeniable material consequences. Politicians on both sides of the aisle redirect attention onto anti-trans bills to grow their own political base each election, while transgender and GNC youth are left behind like shell casings strewn across a battlefield.
Digging Deeper: Implications & Action
Naively believing that policy directly reflects the wills of the people – that anti-trans policy results from the public’s anti-trans views – ignores the barriers to comprehensive and widespread political participation. Due to the intentional gerrymandering plaguing our system and the structural, historical barriers prioritizing the few over the many, public policy often becomes dangerously distorted. Anti-trans bills are not popular among Americans, and support for them – while loud – is small and manufactured. The question arises, then, if anti-trans legislation doesn’t derive from the masses, where do these policies find their origin? The answer is simple: conservative think tanks drafting policies, sending them to state legislators around the country, and hoping some will stick. Last spring, when the “Don’t Say Gay” bill awaited Florida Governor Ron DeSantis’ signature, I witnessed the think tank process for myself. After the bill passed into law, copies popped up in Georgia and Alabama, and similar bill language spread to Ohio and nine other states. Once a bill concept gains traction in one state, it is disseminated to other states by lobbying organizations—essentially creating a fabricated crisis with little care for public opinion or well-being.
Understanding the complex methods, motives, and actors behind the unprecedented levels of anti-trans legislation is crucial for effective advocacy. The key to fighting these harmful bills lies is marrying together the two foundations of our wave of anti-trans legislation: the disempowerment of youth and the dissonance between public opinion and policy. As a young, nonbinary person, there is solace in conceptualizing the mechanisms that have turned your state legislators against your very existence—but there is also power in turning this recognition into action.